Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 1, January 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rebecca Bell-Metereau

 

Movie-made Memories:

On _Memory and Popular Film_

 

 

_Memory and Popular Film_

Edited by Paul Grainge

Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2003

ISBN 071963744 hb 0719063752 pb

261 pp.

 

_Memory and Popular Film_ is a thought-provoking read. In the Introduction Paul Grainge defines the scope of the anthology, noting the distinction between public history films, which document and alter cultural and political events, and private memory and identity films, with their focus on 'fantasy, subjectivity, and fabrication' (8). Dividing its consideration between early 'history' films, political works, and self-consciously mediated films, this work lays its foundations in the groundwork of such notable contributors as Robert Burgoyne and John Storey. Focusing on US media as the ultimate expression of late consumer capitalism, Grainge notes that 'the issue of amnesia has gathered conceptual momentum in significant strands of postmodern literature, refiguring the cliches of American forgetting and ahistoricism (symptomatic of a culture that has long been seen to invest, ideologically, in trajectories of the future) at a more fundamental level' (7). He contrasts Fredric Jameson's famous observation that in a postmodern society, 'our entire social situation has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve', with what Andrew Hoskins calls 'new memory' (7). [1] Siding with 'new memory', Grainge explains that this anthology concentrates on the presence and persistence of American memory, rather than on its loss or absence, and he promotes Robert Sklar's argument that the connections between memory and film became 'more tangible and self-conscious' during the 1970s (9).

 

Roberta Pearson contrasts Yale's 'educational' _Chronicles of America_, a series of films designed to educate and acculturate immigrants to the United States, with two popular historical epics, _The Last of the Mohicans_ (1920) and _The Vanishing American_ (1925). She argues effectively that these two early historical films, driven by the commercial need to satisfy a wide range of viewers, presented a more polysemous and nuanced depiction of Native Americans than did Yale's supposedly more 'educational' _Chronicles of America_. While all of the films of the period present racist portraits of Indians as either monsters or 'noble savages', Pearson observes that while the _Chronicles_ were created to pretty obvious ideological goals, they 'exhibit none of the inconsistencies and contradictions that mark films such as _The Last of the Mohicans_ and _The Vanishing American_' (39).

 

Heidi Kenaga's 'Civic Pageantry and Public Memory in The Silent Era Commemorative Film: _The Pony Express_ at the Diamond Jubilee' describes one of the first instances of reverse adaptation, in which the historical novel was published after production of the film of the same name. Moreover, the novel was based on research completed in developing the film, and the completion of the story paralleled the tale of the Pony Express riders in creating a transcontinental link, as Paramount Studio created publicity for the film as primarily educational rather than commercial. Harvard-educated novelist and critic Henry James Forman lent his credentials to the project, and his journey to ferret out information on the Pony Express actually took him from the Library of Congress, through archives across the country, to the collection of materials at Wells Fargo in Sacramento, California. Studio heads inserted into the tale a series of intertitles that emphasized a connection between saving California and preserving the Union, thus undermining the notion of California as somehow ahistorical or separated from the educational patina of the east. The _Covered Wagon_'s successful marketing and critical reception served as a model for the film, which had its the premiere in California on the Diamond Jubilee of the state's admission to the union. The success of this campaign marked the establishment of Hollywood as the nations 'cultural capital', with its ability to 'shape and promulgate versions of the past for mass consumption' (60, quoting Bodnar's _Remaking America_). [2]

 

In her chapter, 'Cinema-going in the 'Golden Age'', Sarah Stubbings describes narratives taken from the local press in Nottingham, England, most of which deal with films from the 1930s and 1940s. She emphasizes the importance of cinema attendance as a social and cultural event, which established identity, modes of dress, thought, and personal interactions, as detailed in these memoirs. The majority of the respondents expressed the notion that morals had declined over the years, and that filmgoers were generally more polite and well behaved during the 'Golden Age' of 30s and 40s film. The memory narratives also show that viewers recalled the films themselves as being strikingly moral in nature, and they also attribute to these films a quality of building community and good morale during difficult times. Meanwhile, the press benefits from encouraging a continuing and faithful (albeit aging) readership for such narratives. This piece does not have a strong argument, but it is interesting for its account of a relatively little-known phenomenon.

 

In Julian Stringer's 'Raiding the Archive: Film Festivals and the Revival of Class Hollywood', he observes that if a film is not 'voted' as worthy of preservation, it is likely to fade from public awareness. Indeed, it may ultimately be lost entirely. Film festivals help to institutionalize film favorites and establish them as current commodities. Those such as the London Film Festival tend to fetishize 'industrial and technological innovations', and they also promote more traditional concepts of the auteur. Stringer notes how the 'lowbrow' quality of much Hollywood film stand in contrast to the 'highbrow or rarefied nature of the festival's own museum aesthetic' (87). The main thrust of his argument is that film festivals, while performing an admirable goal of furthering the preservation of films, are governed more by commercial considerations and the agendas of studios and archives than they are by cultural, aesthetic, or educational goals.

 

The second section of the book, 'The Politics of Memory', takes a much more opinionated stance, beginning with John Storey's 'The Articulation of Memory and Desire: From Vietnam to the War in the Persian Gulf'. He describes how revisionist histories during the 1980s refashioned the reasons for the United States loss of the war in Vietnam. Rather than describing it as an unwinable situation, the new rhetoric promulgated the notion that the United States government was simply unwilling to commit adequate support for the troops. This chapter is excellent in that it offers statistics on the sorts of facts that never made it into films about the war, even such anti-war films as Oliver Stone's _Born on the Fourth of July_. He notes, for example, that 'between 1966 and 1973, 191,840 men refused to be drafted', and that among those who did go to war, there were 209 verified cases of officers being killed by their own men (105). More important than these omissions are the types of 'truths' or narrative paradigms about the war that developed during the 80s. The first one is that of betrayal, with scenes of protestors criticizing soldiers and undermining their efforts. The second one is what Storey calls the 'inverted firepower syndrome' (109), in which film shows a handful of Americans being attacked by countless hordes of the enemy, quite contrary to the reality of actual combat. The third paradigm is the 'Americanisation of the war', or the focus on almost exclusive focus on American actions, sacrifices, losses, and conflicts, thus using Vietnamese as little more than window-dressing for the drama of an American conflict. The author cautions us, quite rightly, that the fact that the film industry presents such a relatively monolithic distortion does not necessarily mean that all viewers consistently believe such accounts. If I were to quibble with this otherwise brilliant analysis, I would do so by suggesting that lumping Oliver Stone films with the _Rambo_ series does not contribute to a nuanced understanding of filmic responses to the war. While most American war films have their commonalities, they are probably more different from each other than they are similar, both in their intent and their effect on viewers.

 

The foregrounding of whites in film depictions of civil rights movements is highlighted in Sharon Monteith's 'The Movie-made Movement: Civil Rites of Passage'. Most of the supposed civil rights films produced from the 60s through the 80s are not about the movement but about the conversion of whites. She points out how reviewers collaborate in this erasure of blacks from their own movement, by referring to narratives that are already centered on white people as stories of 'white civil rights workers', as opposed to black people, who are often depicted simply as common laborers, with no political consciousness. The piece has a rather unfinished feel to it, perhaps because the subject itself is still in process. Films that truly represent African American perspectives have not yet fully arrived, and the majority of movies dealing with the civil rights movements still center on white rather than black experiences. Nevertheless, the making and viewing of such films can be seen to have a positive effect on at least some whites, sometimes leading them toward a real-life conversion.

 

Alison Landsberg's 'Prosthetic Memory: The Ethics and Politics of Memory in an Age of Mass Culture' deals with the fascinating topic of the relationship between private and public or communal memories. Focusing on Kathryn Bigelow's _Strange Days_ (1995), she traces how the film presents memory as a kind of private addiction that reduces individuals' ability to function socially to enact change. While critics like Baudrillard and Jameson criticize film for its tendency to create simulacra, copies of copies of a reality that never existed, Landsberg sees positive potential in film's ability to 'open up the possibility for collective horizons of experience and pave the way for unexpected political alliances' through what she calls 'prosthetic memories' (149). Landsberg acknowledges that this vision may be utopian, but she imagines a world in which progressive people make use of communal manufactured 'memories' in order to forge new unities and promote social justice. While this is a laudable goal, I question whether disengagement from 'real' and particularized history in favor of a communal manufactured history is not yet another way to evade the uncomfortable realities that lock in place the very system of oppression and exploitation she wishes to undermine.

 

Neil Campbell envisions a similar sort of effect for cinema in ''Forget the Alamo': History, Legend and Memory in John Sayles's _Lone Star_', a laudatory analysis of a film about race, created by a white director. He observes that Sayles' film constitutes one of the phases of the American culture wars of the 1980s and 90s. In response to such critics as E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, Sayles creates a masterpiece that seeks unity without creating a monolithic unidirectional conception of the heroic past. Campbell does some interesting analysis of the formal aspects of the film that reinforce or reify the film's content, noting that he edits without the usual structural boundaries between past and present. He also lays out the intertextual references of the film, eventually quoting Gloria Anzaldua's analysis of a 'hybridity of equal parts instead of a graft and a major tree' (177). While this piece may not emerge with strikingly innovative insights on the film, it does provide an excellent overview of the film's depth, complexities, and artistry.

 

As with many of the pieces in this collection, Philip Drake's ''Mortgaged to Music': New Retro Movies in 1990s Hollywood Cinema' also takes issue with Jameson's contention that nostalgia 'empties history of politics, reducing it to a recombination of stereotypes of the past' (189). He goes on to analyze the use of nostalgia soundtracks in _Jackie Brown_ and _Sleepless in Seattle_ in a way that simply bolsters and exemplifies Jameson's argument regarding nostalgia films. The discussion focuses primarily on the performance of the past and very little on the substance of the narrative.

 

Paul Grainge's 'Colouring the Past: _Pleasantville_ and the Textuality of Media Memory' contrasts two films that use technology as a central feature: _Forrest Gump_ and _Pleasantville_. Focusing on the process of colorization, Grainge analyzes the symbolic import of color in Gary Ross's _Pleasantville_ and points to the historical connection with Ted Turner's unpopular attempts to colorize classic black-and-white Hollywood films. Making this connection seems to me to ignore an important difference in the technical process, and this omission is further reflected in the omission of any discussion of the film's visual homage to _To Kill a Mockingbird_. Rather than adding color that was not there, Ross used a process that washed the color from color film stock. In the opening shots, the screen alternates between color and black and white. In the opening 'real life' scenes, color is present, although somewhat dark. Once the characters enter the black and white world, there is a strong sense of something having been removed, not added. As the narrative progresses, color is 'unconcealed', as a sort of hidden inner reality blossoms from within the characters. Not only does this result in a very different visual feel from the colorization process; it also reflects the thematic content of the narrative. Like the world in _To Kill a Mockingbird_, the world of Pleasantville 'disappears' what is actually present in the world. In the _Pleasantville_ courtroom scene, which visually echoes the mise-en-scene of _To Kill a Mockingbird_, the 'coloreds' stand as an observant and reflexive gallery in the balcony sections, standing in for the film's audience. Color gradually emerges in the faces of characters as they experience passion and emotion, a sort of reverse transference that occurs with viewers as they vicariously experience the emotions of film characters. Grainge defends _Pleasantville_ as being much more sophisticated and multi-layered than a number of critics he quotes would have it, and this is one of the best features of the piece. Nevertheless, the omission of such details on the film's allusions and technical processes compromises an otherwise fascinating and worthwhile piece.

 

Robert Burgoyne's 'Memory, History and Digital Imagery in Contemporary Film' is the most philosophical and thought-provoking piece in the collection, addressing the ways in which film's indexicality has been undermined by digital manipulation of media. Burgoyne finds Elsaesser and Landsberg's idea of a new authenticity made up of individual and collective experience 'provocative and persuasive enough as regards memory and the media', but he warns us to be aware of the 'wild card effect' which takes place in a film like _Wag the Dog_, a cautionary tale about the ability of the media to create events that never took place (230). He also discusses how _Forrest Gump_ uses digital technology to rewrite historical events, resulting in an artificial record of a historical and social past that supports conservative politics. Two other films, _Obsessive Becoming_ and _JFK_, represent 'a productive breakdown of boundary distinctions in the representation of the past' (231). Burgoyne closes his piece with the suggestion that recent trends toward mediation of the image may push us 'all the way to premodernity, to medieval or mythic times when the line between fantasy, fact and speculation was not yet clearly drawn' (234).

 

In 'Postcinema/Postmemory' Jeffrey Pence closes the anthology with a highly theoretical analysis of Atom Egoyan's work. Pence observes that Egoyan 'invites us to direct a critical forgetting in two directions at once. Technologized memory and nationalisms are both instrumental in a strong sense and produce, in his films and the world itself, the irrationalities of any totalizing system' (254). While this loss of a 'true past' may seem somewhat regrettable, he argues that this may be worthwhile because it is accompanied by the loss of 'fantasies of total memory' (254).

 

_Memory and Popular Film_ seems to close with the uneasy assertion that we cannot hope to remember, and therefore we should be satisfied to abandon the illusion or fantasy of memory. While the assertion of the impossibility of remembering accurately is no doubt true, some readers and viewers may keep on struggling, like Sisyphus, in spite of the daunting nature of the task.

 

Texas State University

San Marcos, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. See Andrew Hoskins, 'New Memory: Mediating History', _The Historical Journal of

Film, Radio and Television_, vol. 21 no. 4, 2001, pp. 333-46.

 

2. See J. Bodnar, _Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in

the Twentieth Century_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 114.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Rebecca Bell-Metereau, 'Movie-made Memories: On _Memory and Popular Film_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 1, January 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n1bell-metereau>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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